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Judge Limits Acres Opened By USDA for Cattle Feeding: Conservation Reserve Land Had Been Taken Out of Agricultural Production but Freed Amid Emergencies

July 28, 2008

By Dawn House, The Salt Lake Tribune

Jul. 28–A federal judge has restricted haying and grazing on lands the U.S. Department of Agriculture had opened up to cattle producers coping with drought, other natural disasters and escalating feed costs.

Seattle Judge John C. Coughenour on Thursday limited the amount of acreage in the one-time, critical-feed program created by the USDA in May to open up Conservation Reserve lands for livestock after the primary nesting season ended for grass-nesting birds.

Coughenour ruled the U.S. Department of Agriculture violated a federal environmental law when it enrolled landowners in the initiative on lands taken out of agricultural production through the Conservation Reserve Program.

“This is pretty important, especially given the number of CRP acres in Utah and last summer’s wildfires” that burned tens of thousands of acres of rangelands, said Utah Farm Bureau spokesman Matt Hargreaves.

In Utah, a total of 200,000 acres have been designated as Conservation Reserve lands, in which the federal government pays farmers to plant grass, shrubs and tree cover on highly erodible acreage. Officials on Friday were unable to give an estimate of lands earmarked for the critical-feed initiative.

The USDA and the National Wildlife Federation, which had brought the lawsuit, said they won’t appeal the judge’s ruling.

But Utah cattleman Scott Sandall, who applied for 2,000 acres of his property in Box Elder County to be opened as forage ground, said it appears that local officials are still determining how the ruling applies to producers. Although the ruling outlines who is eligible, at this point “we can’t get any information on where we are in the application process.”

The ruling allows landowners to convert their CRP acreage to forage ground if they applied and received approval prior to July 8, when the judge first issued a temporary restraining order.

In addition, farmers whose applications were submitted by July 8 but have not yet been processed also will be allowed to convert their Conservation Reserve lands to haying and grazing.

No other CRP lands are eligible for the critical-feed initiative — unless farmers can prove they’ve spent at least $4,500 prior to July 8 to ready their land for the critical-feed program, such as building fences or digging wells.

“We’re satisfied with the ruling,” said National Wildlife Federation’s Julie Sibbing. “We did not want to penalize farmers who had relied on the USDA and were caught in the middle of the litigation.”

The USDA initially estimated that as many as 24 million acres would be available in the critical-feed program. Prior to July 8, the department had received applications for about 2.5 million acres.

Federal officials had said that the one-time initiative would generate around 18 million tons of hay and forage, valued at $1.2 billion.

The judge said in his four-page ruling that the USDA had acted “arbitrarily, capriciously and unreasonably” when it decided that the initiative would have no significant harmful environmental impacts.

The ruling does not affect emergency haying or grazing from disaster declarations in various states.

The issue at a glance

–What: A judge has limited a haying and grazing initiative on lands in a federal conservation program.

–In Utah: There are about 200,000 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program.

–Who is affected: Producers enrolled in the critical-feed initiative to cope with drought, wildfires.

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